Month: May 2010

Scattered Pieces

Scattered Pieces is certainly an appropriate title for Flora Season’s debut memoir, for the book reads like a collage of images and incidents from the author’s difficult yet ultimately triumphant life. Yet the pieces are by no means random recollections. Rather, the book represents Season’s efforts first at figuring out how she gained a reputation as a promiscuous youth (despite doing her best to remain chaste) and, later, at using that knowledge to move her life in a new direction. Indeed, if the book has a single argument, it’s that the only way to break free from the chains of a troubled past is to confront one’s history head-on and with no apologies.

Season’s memoir is fairly epic in scope, beginning with a harrowing depiction of life with an abusive father and a largely absent mother. What follows amounts to a study in the ways in which home life and culture work in tandem to paint people into corners: although she escapes the frying pan of living with an abusive father, she only does so by leaping into the fire of the culture that produced him — a culture in which boys are encouraged to view women as their play things and in which women are trained from an early age that their “job” is to please the men in their lives. In the author’s words, “Mommy makes me clean the entire house while my brother gets to play, but I understand; it’s because I’m a girl, and I’m going to be someone’s wife one day.”

While the grand sweep of Season’s narrative certainly offers the reader much to consider, the action also moves at a fairly fast clip. Some paragraphs could easily be developed into chapters, some chapters into book-length memoirs in their own right. All of this is to say that Scattered Pieces offers a glimpse of what is to come from an author whose odyssey from childhood to young adulthood and beyond is as checkered yet hopeful as any memoir on the market.

Do Something Do Something Do Something

Reading Joseph Riippi’s debut novel, Do Something Do Something Do Something, is a lot like hearing Nirvana’s Bleach on vinyl might have been in 1989. We get a glimpse, as other reviewers have noted, of a writer whose potential is yet to be fully realized (and, thus, whose best works are probably ahead of him), and whose raw talent, creativity, and energy are palpable on every manic page of the book. Yes, Riippi has a somewhat maddening fondness for stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that go on for pages at a time, and, yes, he cheats a little by relating at least a third of the narrative through the eyes of a narrator who turns out to be completely unreliable, but such peccadillos are ultimately forgivable, especially in light of the fact that he’s only taking the kinds of risk that all great writers take when walking the high wire of great literature. (Faulkner, anyone?)

The novel focuses on three characters whose loosely connected lives suggest that none of us are alone in the struggle to make sense of the world. In one strand of the narrative, a woman with a starfish tattooed to her breast visits her brother in a mental institution and subsequently embarks on a journey into her own difficult past. In the second strand, a dramatist wrestles with the emotional impact of the dissolution of his marriage following the death of his infant daughter. In the third strand, an arts critic finds himself committed to a mental institution after attacking a stripper. Though only the first and third strands come together directly (the woman with the starfish tattoo is the sister of the committed arts critic), all three narratives complement each other in terms of both imagery and thematic content.

The title of the novel speaks to the existential angst of all three protagonists. As one character notes fairly late in the novel, “Hope is the only thing that makes us do anything, and doing something is the only way to happiness.” The only problem for the characters, however, is that hope is in short supply and that “doing something” has the ironic potential to eliminate hope — a fact that becomes especially clear when a dark skinned man boards an airplane and a panic-stricken racist starts screaming at her husband to “Do something! Do something! Do something!”

What is especially clear throughout Do Something Do Something Do Something is that Joseph Riippi is a student of the human heart and a keen observer of emotional complexity. His characters are all broken in some way, yet he has the patience to follow them on every step along their crooked paths to wholeness, even if said wholeness is no more than an illusion. A strong debut novel in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, to a lesser extent, The Catcher in the Rye, Do Something Do Something Do Something is, with any luck, a precursor to a body of work that will shine new light on the darkest recesses of the human heart for years to come. I’m fairly certain this Joseph Riippi guy and I would get along well.

Wild Apples 5: In Praise of Animals

As Elli Crocker’s Sheepish (left) might suggest, the latest issue of Wild Apples is not just an homage to the creatures with whom we share our world; it’s also a colorful exploration of our relationship with those creatures, an examination of the ways in which the lines between ourselves and other members of the animal kingdom might not always be so clear. The journal itself is lavishly illustrated with a wide range of paintings, drawings, and photographs, and the essays and poems that appear throughout are both inspiring and thought-provoking.

Of particular interest is an essay titled “The Animals Within Us” by Greg Lowenberg. In this piece, Lowenberg, the Director of Education for the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Maine, builds upon Edward O. Wilson’s concept of biophilia (the theory that humans unconsciously seek connections with the rest of life) to argue that the microbes and parasites we hold in common with other organisms underscore the extent to which we have all participated in the same intricate process of evolution. These microbes and parasites, according to Lowenberg, include “organisms that came from elsewhere but live within us, with full time jobs performing essential functions as digestion, disease and infection prevention, and tissue repair.” What’s more, Lowenberg argues, the fact that we share this condition with many other organisms means that we are not alone — and that we are not so different from other species as we might like to imagine.

Also of interest (among the many insightful essays and poems in the collection) is Katherine Leibowitz’s “Out of Our Skins: of Flux and Flame,” which offers a survey of myths, legends, and works of literature in which humans have taken animal form (and vice versa) throughout the ages. What emerges throughout this essay is that such tales are common to all cultures — a fact that echoes Lowenberg’s point that (other) animals are more central to the human identity than we tend to let on. We see ourselves in animals, both essays seem to imply, not so much because they are so human, but because we are, at the end of the day, animals ourselves.

As these two examples suggest, Wild Apples does a wonderful job of combining disciplines. Art, literature, history, and science all work together to complement each other beautifully and effectively in this colorful 48-page volume. Highly recommended (as the journal’s tag line suggests) for lovers of nature, art, and inquiry — and, if I might add my own two cents, for lovers of good writing as well.

The Cigar Maker

As author Mark McGinty notes in the acknowledgments of his second novel, The Cigar Maker owes a stylistic debt to influences ranging from such literary luminaries as James Ellroy, Mario Puzo, and William Shakespeare to such epic film trilogies as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings. Indeed, “epic” is perhaps the best word to describe this dense and moving novel, for it has both the multigenerational sweep of works like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and the social awareness of John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. All of this is to say that for his sophomore literary outing, McGinty has done nothing short of producing the great American novel.

Part of what makes The Cigar Maker both “great” and “American” is that the novel is steeped in the immigrant experience. Shortly after the sinking of the USS Maine, a young father named Salvador Ortiz moves his family from Cuba to the United States and goes to work making a living for himself as a cigar maker. The Florida city in which he finds himself, moreover, is a hotbed of political and criminal industry, and it isn’t long before Ortiz — who wants nothing more than to provide for his wife and children — becomes embroiled in the the town’s machinations. In this regard, The Cigar Maker also reads like a literary version of Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York with a Cuban flare. That is, it’s a historical tale of class struggle with a distinctly humane focus in that the story of the Ortiz family mirrors not only the story of American workers but the story of America itself.

None of this, of course, is to say that The Cigar Maker presents an overly rosy picture of the American dream. Ortiz struggles daily just to get by, and he endures more setbacks than triumphs throughout the novel. Yet he never gives up, and keeps fighting for the greater good because, more than anything, he is a man of great conscience — a rarity, perhaps, in the current postmodern literary landscape, but a breath of fresh air as well.

Though The Cigar Maker is largely a historical novel, the issues it touches upon are as relevant today as they were a century ago: labor relations, immigration, and the nation’s involvement in foreign wars chief among them. What’s especially striking about The Cigar Maker, however, is that it doesn’t treat these issues as discrete phenomena; rather, it explores the interconnectedness of all three. In so doing, the novel reminds us that although we are all in many ways beholden to the vast machinery of forces beyond our control, we are all, nonetheless, creatures of conscience and are all, thus, responsible for doing what we can to shape the world into the place we want it to be.

Painstakingly researched and lovingly crafted, The Cigar Maker is a serious and significant novel about the American experience. The writing is beautiful, the characters lively, and the settings awash with visceral historical detail. An excellent book on all counts.

Skin Horse: Volume One

I knew I was in trouble when the characters from Skin Horse started invading my dreams — this after a long day of battling cold symptoms with various over-the-counter remedies and topping the evening off with a healthy dose of NyQuil. Even without medication, however, I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard for the characters in this web-comic-turned-graphic-novel to insinuate themselves into my psyche. They’re a little bit loopy, somewhat dirty-minded, occasionally violent, and on a mission from the US Government to integrate sentient non-humans into society at large. The only problem is that the non-humans tend to resist the team’s efforts with a vengeance. Take, for instance, the case of the helicopter with the human brain: He didn’t ask to be made into the perfect killing machine; life just dealt him a strange hand. So who can blame him for resisting a little when the Skin Horse team — which, by the way, consists of a talking dog, a rampaging patchwork zombie girl, and a cross-dressing psychologist — arrives at Area 51 to convince him to take a job flipping burgers at Arby’s? (Okay, so they don’t actually suggest the Arby’s job, but given the work that they’ve found for their other clients, which include a talking lion and a small army of killer robots, it isn’t much of a stretch.)

As bizarre as it is, Skin Horse is also funny and smart, with hints of Jonathan Swift’s keen sense of satire (not to mention his penchant for the absurd) and Neil Gaiman’s playful faith in magic of all forms. Among the sentient non-humans the team encounters over the course of their adventures are a race of opera-loving silverfish, a tribe of centipedes gifted in handicrafts, and an overbearing crystalline intelligence with a talent for political machinations. That they’ve all been living for years beneath Skinhorse HQ without any members of the team being aware of it only underscores the subtle (and not-so-subtle) jab that authors Shaenon K. Garrity and Jeffrey C. Wells are making at both governmental bureaucracy and the human condition: stuff gets done despite, not because of, our greatest efforts to do it.

Artistically, the comic strips that constitute Skin Horse are a cross between Doonesbury and Tintin, with a slight manga flare that lends itself nicely to the tongue-in-cheek violence of the proceedings. What’s more, Garrity and Wells work wonders with the daily strip format, extending the premise-setup-punchline formula of gag-oriented strips to monstrously ludicrous proportions as each day’s joke builds upon the last to create teetering narrative towers of Rube Goldberg proportions. To put it another way, as the plot lines grow more ridiculous, the story gets better and better. The only problem, of course, is that I can’t figure out how to get the crazy buggers out of my head.

Where the Dog Star Never Glows

The first thing that will strike anyone who reads Where the Dog Star Never Glows is the absolute precision of author Tara L. Masih’s prose. Throughout this collection of short stories, Masih firmly establishes herself as a master of what Gustave Flaubert (among others, including Nelson Muntz) described as le mot juste. Hers is a vocabulary wide-ranging enough to speak with studied expertise on matters ranging from tourist traps in tropical climes to the last moments of old men in tired coal mining towns, yet natural enough to talk about the trials and tribulations of a young mother-to-be in the simplest of terms, like starting a Jeep and heading for the Circle K to buy groceries. In other words, Masih has done what so many other writers spend a lifetime attempting: she’s grown so comfortable with words — the very stuff, the atoms of literature itself — that she can breathe life into the fictional worlds of her imagination with the greatest of ease. At least, that’s how it feels from the outside. Like the best of artisans, she makes her job look easy.

Masih, however, is not just a wordsmith. She’s also a master of navigating the loneliest reaches of the human heart. In a story titled, “Say Bridgitte, Please,” she follows a lonely schoolgirl down a path toward what may either be self-discovery or self-destruction, proving, as Carson McCullers once suggested, that the heart is the loneliest of hunters. Yet the author’s vision is not without hope: early on, Masih offers “The Guide, The Tourist, and the Animal Doctor,” in which the key to the human heart is revealed to, on occasion, take the form of a pair of tennis shoes; while later in the collection, a very short piece titled “Suspension” suggests that the kindness of strangers can offer the greatest comfort any of us might ever hope to experience. We are all lonely in some way, Where the Dog Star Never Glows reminds us, yet, in the end, loneliness is only what we make of it.

Where the Dog Star Never Glows is an amazing collection of short fiction that introduces Tara L. Masih as a true artist of the short story whose way with words is matched only by her intuitive grasp of all that makes us human. Needless to say, I can’t wait to see what this author does next.

American Boy: Pushing Sixty

Anthony Buccino’s latest collection of poetry, American Boy: Pushing Sixty, casts a nostalgic eye back at the past while sizing up the future with a wary mix of doubt and hope. Reminiscent of Kermit Moyer’s novel-in-stories, The Chester Chronicles, the first movement of American Boy explores the often-paradoxical psychic landscapes of the United States in the 1950s and 60s. Here, we find a black and white world where father always “knew best/When he left it to Beaver” while Beaver—or at least his contemporaries—hid under schoolroom desks, waiting for Russia to drop the bomb.

Yet as history marches on and the years pile up, the poet remembers his earlier days with increasing fondness, as in “In My Room,” in which Buccino paints a picture of his bedroom—psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, teacher’s desk, Motorola television, and all—only to reveal that the room remains intact, even if it has been transplanted to his office basement. Despite such valiant efforts at preserving the past, Buccino recognizes that he’s embarked upon an impossible mission. Time, it turns out, can’t be stopped—which might not be so bad if old age didn’t come along for the ride. When the poet turns away from the past to focus on the present (and, indeed, the future as well), he gives it to us straight: hearing loss and arthritis are as inevitable as death and taxes. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it turns out. As Buccino insists in “No Time for Oops,” “You’ve got to buck up, kid,/face the way things are./You can’t go anywhere but forward./You’ve got to leave the past behind.”

We are all beholden to the passage of time, Buccino reminds us at every turn — and what we do with the precious time we’re allotted is the best, and perhaps only, measure of our humanity.